My Favourite Room: Floating on the waves
At 61, former TV presenter Barbara McMahon has the wind in her sails, says Mary O'Sullivan, with plenty of simple ideas for keeping her body trim and her seaside holiday home looking ship-shape. Photography by Tony Gavin
Most women are graduates of what one wit called the Zsa Zsa Gabor Creative School of Mathematics and claim they don't know how old they are. But not former TV presenter Barbara McMahon, who proudly announces that she has just turned 61.
Of course, this glamorous blonde can afford to shout it from the rooftops -- she barely looks 41. She is one woman who has wisely embraced the words of another sage who pronounced, "They say that age is all in your mind. The trick is to keep it from falling down into your body." So she does lots of sensible things, such as walking. Indeed, she's leading the Pink Ribbon Walk in aid of cancer research in Killaloe, Co Clare, next Saturday, May 28; she's patron for the second year running -- she got involved as it's so near her gorgeous holiday home in Doonbeg.
She also plays golf in the nearby club, although she insists, "I love golf more than it loves me." It seems she's being a bit modest -- she did, after all, have a hole-in-one in 2006, and she has the certificate to prove it.
Barbara does everything with passion and enthusiasm, including being a grandmother -- her son, Jason, has three children; doing up her homes; and even embracing romance again. Although her marriage of 27 years to Limerick businessman Marcus McMahon was a happy one, sadly it didn't stand the test of time and they separated. Three years ago, she tied the knot with an old friend from her home county of Louth -- widowed solicitor Terry Grant. "I haven't stopped laughing since I met him. I love being married -- I love home baking and homemaking," Barbara says.
Despite her enviable figure and unlined face, Barbara refuses to sugar-coat her own situation and maintains she has all the ageing aspects of your usual sixtysomething. "I've plenty of flaws: gravity has struck, I've cellulite and I've crepey skin," she insists with a laugh, adding that she knows how to minimise the flaws through the way she dresses. "For one thing, I never go sleeveless," she says, relating one way she was able to overcome that problem. "I love customising my clothes. I wanted to wear a sleeveless black dress I have, so I got a pair of black fishnet hold-ups, opened up the toes, made sleeves and sewed them into the dress."
She has tons of tips and so is thrilled to have been enlisted by Arnotts to start giving workshops to older women, from over-55s to what she calls "exit". "When I see my mother, who's 93 and still wonderfully stylish, it gives her such joy to buy an outfit. Don't take her on a scenic drive, just take her into the shops and she's thrilled," Barbara says.
She is keenly aware that the fashion industry is focused on the 30s and 40s, that women tend to become invisible as they get older and she is determined to do her bit to reverse that trend. "When I hit 60 last year, society classified me as an old person. I want to help dispel that," she explains. No better woman --after all, she gained years of experience of the fashion business as presenter for nearly 10 years of RTE's first fashion programme, Head to Toe.
Another of Barbara's current projects is her membership of the Trelagh Choir. "You're not dealing with muck here," she says with a laugh, adding that she will be singing for the Pope in Rome in October.
Singing was actually Barbara's first career. Born and bred in Blackrock, Co Louth, after completing her Leaving she went to Paris where she was a "semi au pair" with the De Butler family. She also taught English, attended the Sorbonne and received singing lessons. When her year in France was up, her voice was good enough to merit a job as one of the Bunratty singers in Co Clare.
Within months of arriving in the area, Barbara met her first husband and she married at 20. Three children followed -- Marcus, Jason and Shelly -- and she was happy to stay at home when they were small, but, as they grew, she decided to expand her horizons.
She felt interior design was something she could do, so she did various courses, and soon one job led to another and another. Then she had a stroke of genius. "Marcus had a timber factory and I designed a chipboard display table." The table was easy to assemble and very versatile, and soon she was invited on to the afternoon programme Live at 3 to show it off. After her six-minute slot -- which she found terrifying -- the producer told her she was very good and shortly after she was offered the job with Head to Toe.
It turned out she was a natural for TV, and she loved it. "I saw the world with the programme," she notes, adding that in 1997 the programme was handed over to an independent production company and a whole new team was enlisted. She was happy to move on, and did various things, including TV ads.
Then in 2000 she got together with Terry, who had been widowed after his wife Paula died of cancer. "I'd known Terry for 35 years -- our families were friends. Our kids were at school together, our middle sons are best friends," she says. They got married three years ago in Doonbeg, a place they loved so much that they had already bought a house in the area.
"When I lived in Limerick, we had wonderful family times when we spent our holidays in Quilty, Co Clare. Those early days sowed the seed of the inextricable bond that I feel for Clare. So Terry and I asked Manuel Di Lucia, the estate agent from Kilkee, to look for something around here for us. He came up with a house and as we were coming to see it -- we were on the ferry from Kerry, where we'd been at a wedding -- he rang to say they had changed their minds, they weren't going to sell. We thought we might as well look around anyway. And we saw the 'for sale' sign on this house," she recalls.
It turned out to be a tiny cottage, which had been lived in by three bachelors; it had no running water and it was completely overgrown. But there were lots of positives, including a half acre of land and wonderful sea views, although they didn't realise the views were so good until they had bought the cottage and the land was cleared. "The existing cottage didn't have great views, but by adding the top floor and the balcony we can really appreciate the sea," Barbara remarks.
The existing cottage is now only a small part of the house; it comprises the two guest bedrooms and two wet rooms. The cottage blends seamlessly with the new build -- the whole house is an L shape, with double glass doors from every room opening on to the courtyard. On the ground floor Barbara and Terry added a sunroom, a kitchen, a master bedroom en suite -- which has two sets of double doors opening to the courtyard -- and a set of stairs to an expansive open-plan living room. This, in turn, has glass double doors to a large deck with superb sea views.
The decor is very New England in feel, and Barbara achieved this with slate greys -- the ceiling is a lighter tone than the walls -- stripes; and subtle maritime touches such as the boat-shaped coffee table. "My son Marcus saw these, I have three of them. They were actually planters and he thought they'd make great coffee tables. John, the builder, added legs." The builder, John O'Dea from Doonbeg, did a tremendous job, according to Barbara. The work is beautifully finished, and it's obvious that they made a great team.
Barbara is full of very good, apparently simple ideas for creating a very pretty seaside home. For example, in keeping with the New England theme, there are lots of white shutters, but, instead of using expensive plantation shutters, Barbara had John fit louvre doors normally used for wardrobes. She also used bargain sets of duvet covers to make the guest room curtains, herself.
Another ingenious idea is the dumb waiter, which makes life so much easier for the couple and their guests -- they're planning to let Bunker Lodge, as they call it, during the summer months. The dumb waiter is like a little lift -- instead of having to traipse up and down the stairs with trays anytime she and Terry feel like eating in the upper room, all they have to do is pop the tray in the dumb waiter, press a button and up it goes.
The device was particularly useful during the past winter. On December 27, she and Terry were in Louth getting ready to head west for a big walk. Barbara thought she had a rain hat on the top shelf of a wardrobe and, in an effort to reach it, she put her foot in a drawer which was two feet off the ground. Unfortunately the drawer closed and she fell back, breaking her leg.
"The blinking hat wasn't even up there, as I discovered afterwards," she
reports but, ever positive, she says it was her left leg and, with the agreement of her consultant and her insurance company, she was able to drive, even though she was in plaster for six weeks. She has completely recovered and says herself, "I'm hale and hearty and raring to go." And so she will, of course, be leading that walk.
While John created the dumb waiter, it was Barbara's idea; she may claim that her body is sometimes a bit creaky but her brain is as sharp as ever.
See www.pinkribbonwalk.ie To enquire about the house, tel: (087) 256-2155, or see www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p492850 For details of Barbara's workshops, see www.arnotts.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine